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Heroes and Tragedy

In December, there were two mass murderers who used semiautomatic weapons just a few days apart.  The first incident ended with eight people dead, plus the killer.  The second tragedy ended with four innocents killed in two incidents almost twelve hours apart—but it could have been far, far worse, except for one courageous woman.

The first incident received considerably more attention—and you won’t have any difficulty figuring out why.  A 19 year old with a history of legal and psychological problems appears to have responded to being fired from McDonald’s and losing his girl friend by going into a shopping mall in Omaha, and opening fire with what some news accounts described as an AK-47,[1] and others described as an SKS.[2]  (It was apparently stolen from his stepfather.)

Like many of the other mass murderers with firearms, he expected to go out in a blaze of, if not glory, at least fame—and his suicide note to his family directly said that: “Just think tho, … I'm gonna be (expletive) famous.”[3]  (And that’s why you won’t find the Omaha killer’s name in this article.)

A few days later, there was a rather different result.  At New Life Church in Colorado Springs, the pastor became concerned after a bizarre double murder some miles away at an affiliated institution, Youth With A Mission (YWAM) just after midnight on Sunday, December 9.  Several members of his congregation with concealed handgun permits were prepared for trouble when Matthew Murray, a young man with a history of mental illness, showed up to continue his killing spree armed with an assault rifle and two handguns.  He shot three people in the parking lot, killing two teenaged sisters and wounding their father.

Murray appears to have been quite organized; he set off smoke grenades as diversions, and was carrying 1000 rounds of ammunition.[4]  As he entered the church, one of the concealed weapon permit holders who was a volunteer providing security because of the YWAM incident, Jeanne Assam, saw him.  “I just prayed for the Holy Spirit to guide me. I said, ‘Holy Spirit, please be with me.’”  Assam then approached, and opened fire.  While none of the five shots she fired killed Murray, they did put him out of action—and Murray then killed himself, rather than be taken into custody and face trial.[5]

There was general agreement by police and the pastor that Assam’s actions saved fifty to one hundred lives.  In the confined space of a church sanctuary, with 1000 rounds, it is terrifying to think of how many deaths Murray might have caused.  Assam (who is a former police officer) prevented what might have been an even bigger tragedy than Virginia Tech.  Oh yeah: she’s single, and looking for God to bring a man into her life for marriage.  She’s probably awash in suitors by now.

So what was the difference between Omaha and Colorado Springs?  Nebraska recently passed a shall-issue concealed weapon permit law, allowing law-abiding adults in Nebraska to obtain a permit to carry a gun.  Unfortunately, the law allows private property owners to prohibit permit holders from carrying concealed by posting signs that prohibit weapons.  The Omaha mall where this tragedy took place was one of those “gun-free” zones—unlike New Life Church in Colorado Springs. 

Did the Omaha mall’s “gun-free zone” make a difference?  The mall’s “no weapons allowed” sign obviously didn’t discourage the Omaha killer from bringing a rifle in and creating a shooting gallery.  What’s the worst that would have happened to him, if mall security had found that he was armed before he opened fire?  He wasn’t planning to walk out of the mall; he was going there to die.

I can’t think of a single private establishment that I see in Idaho that has signs that proclaim, “No one inside will shoot back if you decide to come in here and kill all us sheep!”  But in many parts of the country, such signs are quite common.  The Trolley Square mass murder in Utah a few months back—that was a gun-free zone.  And Virginia Tech had aggressively fought back attempts to get its ban on concealed carry on campus overturned by the Virginia legislature.  And the mall in Omaha.

Let’s be realistic.  Even where the law allows it, not enough people carry concealed.  Why?  Sometimes because it’s annoying to carry a gun.  I usually carry a Colt Mustang .380 simply because it is so light and compact that it is almost like not carrying a gun at all.  Yes, .380 ACP isn’t one of the better choices for a defensive handgun cartridge, but a weak handgun in your pocket under these conditions is better than a .45 ACP M1911A1 in your car, 500 feet away.

Also, if many places ban concealed carry, this discourages some people from getting licenses.  One chilling account by an eyewitness to the Omaha shootings really shows this.  This guy had gone to the Van Maur mall to buy a gift for his wife, and was close enough to see shells ejecting from the shooter’s rifle:

“Honestly, and as God [is] my witness, when I saw him shooting and as [I] watched for a few seconds trying to figure out what he was going to do and what I should do, the thought that when through my mind was, ‘If I had a gun, I have a perfect shot.’

“Yes, a perfect shot. I had a full side profile, I was close, and no one was visible behind him except a wall. I had a clear shot during the second round of fire. I told this to every cop I came in contact with. The interviewer agreed.

“When I realized that I had no gun, fear instantly struck me, along with anger, and severe panic.”

So why didn’t this eyewitness have a gun? 

“I do not have a Concealed Handgun Permit.  I have completed the training class, but I keep putting off applying for the permit because I think it is useless.  In the places I would need a gun most, I am not allowed to have it. I will not be a person living in fear and not go to Van Maur because they don’t allow guns.”[6]

He didn’t have a permit to carry concealed because so many businesses that he frequented prohibited guns.  Why get a permit that you aren’t going to use?

There are people who argue that the best solution to these mass murders is for everyone to be armed.  More concealed carry by law-abiding, sane adults is certainly useful, both for the mass murders (which are highly publicized, but rare) and for the garden variety criminal attacks.  I encourage all of my readers who are of sober judgment and may legally carry concealed to do so. 

I don’t think that this is the best solution—but it is a solution.  Murray, the Colorado Springs killer, appears to have had some sort of psychotic disorder develop in his late teens or early twenties.  His embitterment with Youth With A Mission and Christianity in general came after he was told that he would not be allowed to go on an overseas mission because of what was described as health concerns.  According to an acquaintance at YWAM, Murray explained that he was talking to the voices: “'Don't worry, Richard. You're a nice guy. The voices like you.”[7] 

While the Omaha shooter’s problems seem to not have risen to the level of psychosis, it is apparent that he had some very serious problems.  His violent behavior at age six came to the attention of the courts after the divorce of his parents.  He was hospitalized after threatening to kill his stepmother at age 14, and twice more in the following several years.  Perhaps the most painful part of one of these articles was this quote from a staffer at one facility where he was treated: “That's the thing that stood out…. He always wanted to be with his parents.”[8]

Regular readers of my column know that I would prefer to see a bit more emphasis put on correcting the serious defects in the mental health system in the United States.  In the meantime, widespread carrying is our best defense against these tragedies.    

Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer and historian. His sixth book, Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie (Nelson Current, 2007), is available in bookstores.  His web site is

[1] Kelly Riddell, “Omaha Police Hunt for Motive in Gunman's Mall Attack (Update5),” December 6, 2007,, last accessed December 24, 2007.

[2] Catherine Elsworth, “Omaha mall gunman: Now I’ll be famous,” Daily Telegraph, December 7, 2007,, last accessed December 24, 2007.

[3] Jocelyn Noveck, “Should Media Make Mass Killers 'Famous'?” Associated Press, December 17, 2007,, last accessed December 24, 2007.


[4] Kim Nguyen and Dennis Huspeni, “Gunman killed by his own bullet,” Colorado Springs Gazette, December 13, 2007,, last accessed December 24, 2007.

[5] Jennifer Wilson, “’Me, the gunman and God': Guard hailed for saving lives at church,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 11, 2007,, last accessed December 24, 2007.

[6]Firsthand account of the Von Maur shooting,” Joe’s Crabby Shack, December 8, 2007,, last accessed December 24, 2007.

[7] “Colorado gunman scared co-workers 5 years ago, one says,” CNN, December 11, 2007,, last accessed December 24, 2007.

[8] Robert Hawkins: His life a tragic tumble down,” Omaha World-Herald, December 9, 2007,, last accessed December 24, 2007.